In July 1997, Vice President Al Gore thought he had just the right setting to speak up for the environment and its human inhabitants. With a heat wave for a backdrop and an asthmatic Takoma Park boy as a prop, he strode to a White House podium to support new rules reducing smog. “[W]e’re moving forward on our greatest challenge,” he said, “and that is to provide a better and safer and healthier world for our children and their children to come.”
Neither he nor his protg at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Carol Browner, mentioned that there was little scientific evidence to justify the rule. Nor did either mention that just the day before, the Clinton administration had turned down the request of a Virginia environmental official that could have reduced smog levels during the heat wave: Call off the federal government for a day. Let nonessential federal workers stay home and off the highways, much as the feds do during snow emergencies. The federal government declined, saying it would cost taxpayers $73 million to give workers the day off. So much for the health of asthmatic children.
Becky Norton Dunlop, the former Virginia secretary of Natural Resources who called the Clinton administration that day, recalls the incident in a book forthcoming from the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution and a newspaper, the Northumberland Echo. To her, and probably to a good many readers, what happened that day is more evidence of the kind of governmental caprice and hypocrisy that undermines not only environmental protection but faith in government institutions in general.
To judge from her experience, there were all too many such cases. Her book revisits many of them, providing details overlooked or ignored by much of the media covering them at the time, and argues persuasively that limited government, one that respects property rights and state and local involvement, can do a much better job making the outdoors safe for children than the Soviet-style overseers at work today.
Consider the case of the so-called California car. In the wake of the Northridge, Calif., earthquake that left thousands homeless and wounded and its highway system in literal collapse, the state asked for relief from a variety of clean-air rules, including one mandating the sales of low-emission cars. Given that the state had rather more pressing needs than boutique vehicles, sought less by consumers than by EPA, Ms. Browner agreed to postpone the state’s compliance. Interestingly, the number of smog alert days in Los Angeles continued to decline in the following years, even though the area was technically out of compliance with the clean-air rules.
When EPA officials insisted that Virginia and other eastern states satisfy that same California-car standard, Mrs. Dunlop, backed by then-Virginia Gov. George Allen, opposed the requirement for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the brittle science justifying it. The agency’s own internal findings, carefully unannounced, showed “electric vehicles may cause higher overall pollution levels than the gasoline-powered vehicles they are designed to replace when emissions from power plants are considered.” Further, Mrs. Dunlop discovered, electric cars might wind up emitting more carbon monoxide than gasoline-powered cars. Ultimately, an appeals court ruled that EPA had exceeded its authority and blocked the plan.
Mrs. Dunlop and Virginia found themselves in another battle with EPA over the agency’s demand that the state commence centralized auto-emission testing, which would require drivers to visit government testing stations, then drive to separate automobile shops for repairs. Fearful that the plan would turn Virginians into “ping pong balls in a game of bureaucratic table tennis” one in which they bounce back and forth between testing station and repair shop rather than getting the work done in one place she opposed the plan. Backed by a bipartisan group of Virginia lawmakers and a newly elected Republican-controlled Congress, Mrs. Dunlop helped force the agency to back down. The environment seems to have survived.
She won other battles along the way. Again with the backing of Mr. Allen, she insisted that the federal government pick up the tab for cleaning up the environmental mess left after rayon manufacturer and Pentagon contractor Avtex shut down its operations in Front Royal. She won a settlement that stopped the D.C.-run prison at Lorton from dumping raw sewage into Virginia waters.
For her efforts, she won the undying enmity of federal officials, state Democrats and much of the press, who found her insufficiently enthusiastic in wielding her own regulatory authority or inviting in federal oversight. So it was with some pleasure that she read an Aug. 4, 1999, story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch citing a Virginia Commonwealth University study which found that “Virginia’s overall environment deteriorated until 1994, then started getting better. That coincides with the first year in office of Gov. George Allen, whose policies often were criticized as anti-environmental.” The story ran under the headline, “Clearing the air.”
By no means is Mrs. Dunlop claiming all the credit, either for herself or the Allen administration, for this success. She has plenty of praise for others, including federal officials. She just wants to “clear the air” herself.